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The neon glow of Keith Sonnier continues to shine after his death at 78

Sonnier, the New York-based pioneer of the Process Art Movement, succumbed to chronic illness on July 18, leaving behind a legacy of celebrating the process of creating work.

by Jones JohnPublished on : Jul 23, 2020

In 1982, Keith Sonnier, who passed away on July 18, 2020, told BOMB Magazine, “A lot of the reason that art is so boring is that you can read it and get it in a second and then you don’t want it anymore. It can’t sustain anything”. While this statement can easily be read as a generalised derision of several pre-existing image making traditions, it could also have been his definition of a practice that actively worked against fixed boundaries: by making clear only what it was never intended to be. From the 1960s, Sonnier was involved in a number of projects, from video installations to performances to light sculptures, all with a focus on the act of making rather than on a finished outcome in the spirit of what has come to be known as the ‘Process Art Movement’.

Ba-O-Ba V (1970) by Keith Sonnier | Ba-O-Ba | Keith Sonnier | STIRworld
Ba-O-Ba V (1970) by Keith Sonnier Image Credit: Courtesy of Pace Gallery and Keith Sonnier/Artists Rights Society, New York

Despite the apparent ferment against what came before, Sonnier was not an iconoclast, but had a reverence for a number of world traditions such as Hindu idol making, Chinese calligraphy, and ceremonial temporary sculptures from Africa. What bound these practices were either their transient quality or their ability to take on different forms and meanings in different stages of their being. His time in Ahmedabad, India, in 1981, during the period when a number of regional mythologies found a place in his personal metaphysics, seems to have inspired a mysticism that complemented the aesthetics that he cultivated through the previous decades.

Sonnier’s fascination for the sublime and inclination towards experimentation was polished at Rutgers University, New Jersey, an institution where various key movements which would affect his art, including minimalism, Fluxus, pop art and performance art, came together through the eclectic practices of a number of key practitioners including Roy Lichtenstein, Allan Kaprow and George Segal. In the 1960s he worked in the company of post-minimalist luminaries such as Lynda Benglis and Tina Girouard, improvising and deconstructing technology and contexts intuitively to create a niche for himself within the emerging countercultures in art. It was around this time he was included in Lucy Lippard’s landmark exhibition Eccentric Abstraction (1966), which included artists such as Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman. This would set the precedent for other key exhibitions such as 9 at Leo Castelli (1968), Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials (1969), which would establish him firmly within the canon of Anti-Form and Process art.

Lichtweg at the New International Airport, Munich | Lichtweg | Keith Sonnier | STIRworld
Lichtweg at the New International Airport, Munich Image Credit: Heribert Pohl; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While much of his early work was firmly based within new media, the 1980s heralded in his practice a nascence of traditional craft material, such as bamboo and wood, as he attempted to grapple with the various cultural perspectives he encountered during his extensive travels. This period was marked with various attempts to discover psychical affinities with his materials. During this process, his works began moving away from the wall and became free-standing as in the case of Quadruped (1984) and Trois-Pattes (1984).

Sonnier was most recognised for his use of neon lights, a medium he used as an extension of painting most notably in the Ba-O-Ba series. His childhood in Mamou, Louisiana, where light refracts through the fog and water in the marshes, brought about an early appreciation for the play of light and this influenced much of his recognisable oeuvre. As his practice matured, so did his scale of effervescence as he installed large neon facades in a number of prominent public spaces in America and Europe in the 2000s. The sites for these installations included a number of airports, a church in Austria, Neue National Galerie in Berlin and the World Trade Centre in Washington DC, amongst a number of other locations. Through many of his larger works he also tried to recreate the pomp of festivals such as India’s Holi and Mardi Gras, which is celebrated prominently in his native state, in their luxurious sense of colour and vibrancy.

Kuito (2016) by Keith Sonnier| Kuito | Keith Sonnier | STIRworld
Kuito (2016) by Keith Sonnier Image Credit: Courtesy of Pace Gallery and Keith Sonnier/Artists Rights Society, New York

Sonnier’s life was a constant reminder to the inherent magic present in the process of creating work, and through his practice he brought about a new awareness to the importance of the artistic journey. Amongst the changing seasons of any creation is decay, but beyond it, a new life. Though Sonnier has left this world, his legacy remains firm, apart from his artworks which may be found amongst countless important collections, in the attitudes he has inadvertently helped foster in later generations of artists and aesthetes.

Lunar Slice (2013) by Keith Sonnier| Lunar Slice | Keith Sonnier | STIRworld
Lunar Slice (2013) by Keith Sonnier Image Credit: Courtesy of Pace Gallery and Keith Sonnier/Artists Rights Society, New York

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